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The Art of Allure: Performances in Modern Museums

Recently, the Tate Modern in London has opened a new section; a ten storey tower with a fantastic view on the river Thames.

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Recently, the Tate Modern in London has opened a new section; a ten storey tower with a fantastic view on the river Thames. The fourth floor of this building, known as Switch House, focuses on the theme “Performance and Participation” where the museum presents performances to the public.


This section doesn’t only include artist performances but also installations and artworks which interact with the viewer. Well, it is the “Performance and Participant” section! However, the inclusion of rooms showing old performances had me considering something. Are these artworks really meant to be part of a museum?


Herzog & de Mouron, Switch House, 2016, tate Modern, London. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Herzog & de Mouron, Switch House, 2016, tate Modern, London. Photo by Iwan Baan.


The art historian Brian O’Doherty dealt with this issue in his Inside the White Cube (1976). This essay referred to the institutionalization of Conceptual Art, which happened through the simple decision to include them in museums. However, these new art styles from the seventies, the so-called “institutional critique”, were, until today, meant to be seen outside art institutions.

In any case, putting aside for the moment the discussion over whether this is good or not, Conceptual Art is a material and touchable object that could be easily institutionalized.


How could the experience of a performance be included into a museum? The peculiarity of a Performance, or a Happening, is that it is an experience in a certain location, in a specific moment, that cannot be repeated. Like a theatrical play, a performance is unique and, although it can be repeated, it is never the same. Showing a performance in a museum could be done only through recordings or information from witnesses.

One of the famous performances presented at the Tate Modern is Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramović. In 1974, at the Gallery Morra in Naples, the artist decided to transform herself in an art piece. She stayed still for hours and gave visitors the possibility to use 72 different objects on her that she had laid out on a table. Obviously, the performance ended up dramatically, since many visitors destroyed her clothes, forced her to point a gun on her neck, and literally lost control and composure. The museum shows projected records of the performance and reconstructed the table with the 72 objects. But is that enough? No one can really understand what was going on in the minds of the people involved in that performance and photos or videos cannot fully express the complete insanity that happened in that studio in Naples.


Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0, 1974

Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0, 1974


Not only is a video presentation in a museum not really what the artists had intended or can it really capture the experience of the visitor viewing the act, but other issues are also brought up. During the Seventies, Happenings and Performances were meant to be artistic experiences outside institutions like the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim. The Tate Modern includes performances from some decades ago so they can be seen as art history. On one hand, those records can give a good idea of the artistic environment from fifty years ago while, on the other, it demolishes the sense of the performance itself and the original aim of the artist. Marina Abramović, for example, wanted to push her body to new limits; her body became art during the 1974 performance.

What is the answer? Well, it is difficult these years to understand which path modern and contemporary art museums should take. Nowadays, many performers are in the art market. It is now possible to sell performances, even though they are not repeatable experiences. Performance art is now part of institutions but whether the idea to include them into museums and the market started from outsider artists or institutions themselves is not easy to establish. The question is now whether these performances should retain their value and significance by being transient pieces or whether museums should display them for decades to come . Should these recordings of performances be considered art and displayed in museums or are they only video documents for archives? Do we have to preserve those art pieces or should we respect their original purpose by letting them “die” with the artist? Whether institutionalization is good or not, now everyone can visit the Tate and see Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramović; or rather a pale record of what the artistic performance was.

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